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Children seeking asylum

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In 1991, 3349 unaccompanied children and adolescents (under 18 years) applied for asylum in the United Kingdom (Carolyn Bann and Ruth Tennant. National Children’s Bureau 2002; Highlight no 190. ISSN: 1365–9081). Towards the end of 2001 there were 4196 such children in London: almost a quarter of them (987) were under 16 years old. Most come from Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, or Turkey.

Children travel alone to seek asylum because their desperate parents have sent them away from danger or because they are orphans or separated from their parents. Some, from West Africa or China, it is reported, are the victims of child traffickers for sexual exploitation. Predictably, when they arrive in the UK the children are frightened, lonely, confused, and downhearted. Despite a 2001 Home Office White Paper recommending that they be given proper advice and care from the time of their arrival, some appear to have been left to their own devices and some have slept overnight on the airport concourse. Government policy is that these children should not be detained but it seems that this policy has not always worked out in practice and the Refugee Council has worked with at least 135 unaccompanied children in detention since the beginning of 1997. Most children applying for asylum are not given refugee status but instead are granted leave to remain in the UK only until they are 18. Local social services departments are responsible for the care of these children but several recent reports have pointed to deficiencies in the provisions made.

Caring for their health presents difficulties. Their previous medical and immunisation histories are usually unknown. They inevitably have emotional problems because of their separation from family, friends, and their own culture. They may experience antipathy and prejudice in the local population and psychological problems may include post-traumatic stress disorder. Physical conditions vary with the countries of origin but malnutrition, tuberculosis, hepatitis, malaria, schistosomiasis, and HIV infection may need to be considered. In addition, the children may be living in poor accommodation (the charity Shelter claimed that private rented accommodation provided for asylum seekers was “unfit for human habitation” in one case in six). Finding a school place may be difficult and school examinations times of great anxiety, and the provision of legal advice may be inadequate.

These children often come from places where civilisation has broken down. It should be a mark of our civilisation that children receive kindness and compassion whoever they are and wherever they come from.

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